That includes dealing with a resurgent, but economically shaky, Russia, attempting to finalize an elusive nuclear deal with Iran, normalizing relations with Cuba, and maintaining momentum against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Hardin Lang, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said that the Middle East is likely to constitute a “major and disproportionate” role in Obama’s foreign policy in the year ahead.
“We’ve seen some decent progress on the Iraqi side of the border in the anti-ISIL campaign, but the really tough part has yet to come,” he said.
While the U.S.-led coalition inflicted significant casualties on ISIL militants and dealt blows to its infrastructure in Iraq and Syria through successive waves of airstrikes, that’s only part of the mission.
The other is the development of local forces capable of effectively combatting the group. And that is likely to be no easy task. Iraqi security forces melted away during ISIL’s summer advance, and in Syria there is a dearth of reliable moderate forces.
Beyond Iraq and Syria, the U.S. is also in the midst of a second extension in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. It may be the last opportunity for world powers and Iran to agree to a deal, said Richard Weitz, the director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.
“In theory, you could think of another extension, but under the current leadership in Iran and the U.S., I think they’re going to have to come up with some kind of agreement,” he said. “They’re going to have to come up with something, or we might more likely regress to confrontation.”
Even as uncertainty grips the Middle East, a larger power struggle between the U.S. and Russia will bleed into 2015. And with Russia having a role in major issues including the Iran nuke talks, Syria, and eastern Europe, that dynamic may be crucial for the U.S. in the year ahead.
To be sure, relations proved less than copacetic in 2014.
The U.S. and EU levied several rounds of sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea and its additional actions in Ukraine, in an effort to bring Russia to change course.
Coupled with a dramatic decrease in the price of crude oil, the Russian economy has fallen into tatters. Former finance minister Alexei Kudrin warned Dec. 22 that the country has “entered" or is on the verge of "entering a real, full-fledged economic crisis.”
Gary Schmitt, the co-director of the Marilyn Ware center for security studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said that it’s not clear if Russia will “pick butter over guns.”
“The Obama administration has got a real difficulty on its hands, which is that it really can’t count on Russia simply retreating, and at the same time it has to take advantage of the fact that there is a real conundrum that the Russian state is facing,” he said.
But Republican control of the House of Representatives and the Senate may prove to be the most significant impediment to the president achieving his most daunting foreign policy objectives.
“He may have a very bold agenda, but the chances of him realizing that are small,” said Weitz.
In all, Republicans picked up nine seats in the 100-seat Senate during 2014’s midterm elections, increasing their representation to 54 seats. In the House, Republicans netted an additional 13 seats, bringing their total there to 247 of 435 seats.
While Congress has limited ability to affect U.S. foreign policy, Republican control of both houses is likely to pave the way for more uniform opposition from Capitol Hill on hotly contested matters, such as the lifting of Iran sanctions in any nuclear deal, and the normalization of relations with Cuba.
“The drumbeat will begin right away,” Lang said. “There will be a pretty big push to see the re-application of sanctions on Iran even though we’re still in this negotiation period for four or five months.”
Still, he said that Obama might defy the already considerable opposition from Congress, and push on with even more controversial foreign policy objectives.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a couple other Cuba-style initiatives that we’re going to see on the part of the administration in the next year or two where the president chooses to exercise a certain degree of executive prerogative and authority to get done what he thinks are the right things in terms of a foreign policy legacy," he said.